Art

A Little-Known but Beloved Artist’s Quietly Powerful Still Lifes

Ruth Miller tells us worlds about what it means to see.

Ruth Miller, “Shell, Bottle, Green Tea Pot” (2018), oil on linen, 16 x 24 inches (image courtesy John Davis Gallery)

HUDSON, NY — Ruth Miller’s lifework is a beacon for a certain philosophy of painting. Now in her late 80s, Miller is relatively unknown outside a particular subculture of the painting world, one that included her former friends and neighbors on East 10th Street — Elaine de Kooning, Jack Tworkov, and Esteban Vicente, among others — and the broad community surrounding the New York Studio School, where she taught and occasionally exhibited. To this day, she continues to share her keen and honest observation and, not least, her acute awareness of painting’s unique powers. The results are small- to medium-sized still lifes and landscapes, luminous in color and frank in drawing, that make no attempt to address today’s zeitgeist. They tell us worlds, however, about what it means to see.

Installation view at John Davis Gallery

The artist’s nearly two dozen paintings at John Davis Gallery reveal the influence of Cézanne, updated with a touch of New York School gestural abstraction. Miller’s paintings have always tended to be more atmospheric than Cézanne’s; she kneads the space between objects as much as the objects themselves. In a painting like “Shell, Bottle, Green Teapot” (2018), the objects on a tabletop, viewed from a low vantage point, take on the aspect of a cityscape, so that one can imagine physically wandering between their verticals. The impression is heightened by two pale eggs, huddled at the base of a rising pitcher. (The device of the twin eggs — adroitly borrowed from the 18th-century painter Chardin — reappears in several other paintings.) Another notable canvas, from 2016, captures a mango palpably settling into the folds of a napkin.

Ruth Miller, “Place Recalled — Dusk” (2008), oil on linen, 12 x 16 inches (image courtesy John Davis Gallery)

In other recent paintings, Cézanne’s embrace seems to slip away to something more elemental — to the forces that perhaps influenced the French master in the first place. Miller’s hues respond as much to changes of light as to the objects themselves, their contours beginning to dissolve; color alone weights them in place. In the more conspicuously abstract “Shell and Green Tea Pot Still Life” (2018), the notes of bottle, funnel, eggs, and teapot pace the breadth of a tabletop, itself turned a half-dozen blue- and green-grays by the vagaries of light.

There’s a meditative quietude about Miller’s paintings, one appropriate to a handful of objects resting on a surface. But in pictorial terms, these are dynamic, probing works. Absorbing her paintings at John Davis, one is liable to startle at her “simple” planes of color: this is the way objects look.

Ruth Miller, “Shell and Green Tea Pot Still Life” (2018), oil on linen, 12 x 18 inches (image courtesy John Davis Gallery)

Ruth Miller: Painting continues at John Davis Gallery (362½ Warren Street, Hudson, New York) through November 4.

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